The tale of the balalaika orchestra's origin is as romantic as any Russian folk tune in its repertoire.
Groups like the Balalaika Orchestra of Detroit -- one of two American ensembles heard at Saturday night's Balalaika and Domra Association (BDA) Festival Concert at the Lisner -- trace their roots to an idealistic 19th-century Russian aristocrat named V.V. Andreev.
After listening to the feathery tones that country folk coaxed from three catgut strings, Andreev transported the balalaika from an obscure life in the fields to the nucleus of urban concert culture. When the four-stringed domras arrived, the ensembles grew into colossal bodies of sound. They thrived on such Romantic-era goodies as lavishly harmonized arrangements of simple, rounded tunes.
Even in the chilly days before glasnost, a dedicated balalaika contingent flourished here in the States, swapping old and new material at annual BDA conventions. Capping this year's Washington event with a concert at Lisner, the two American orchestras -- Detroit's and BDA's own -- took turns pulling at the heartstrings with wrenchingly sorrowful and unabashedly patriotic songs.
But balalaika devotees insist upon a highly controlled strain of emotionalism. For example, the sobbing effects mustered by the Detroit group for "The Cherry Tree" come off when players relax their wrists and confine their strumming to one string. This technique can be a pivot point to the blues, as domra soloist Lyubov Matviychuk eloquently proved.
One BDA mission is to subject Americans to the scrutiny of balalaika gurus. Pavel Necheperenko, believed to be the world's greatest balalaika artist, made his first U.S. appearance Saturday. His depth of tone competed with that produced by accompanist Mariana Khasanova-Salzman on her seven-foot Baldwin.
In a sparkling version of the "Habanera," Necheperenko embellished Bizet's embellishments in a wonderfully idiosyncratic way.
Performances by Ukrainian village dancers summoned forth what the balalaika literature owes to other popular arts. Perpetuating the musical handsaw as a folk tradition of note, the Leningrad Lumberjacks offered the evening's most delightful departure.